Greg Alexander

Computer jobs are still hot, hot, hot!

CareerFocus, Spring 2006

Decades ago, few people could have imagined how instrumental the computer would become in everyday lives. Whether working, shopping online or keeping in touch with friends and family via e-mail, computers are everywhere. As the computer’s importance has continued to grow so, too, has the increased need for those in the workforce who possess computer skills – regardless of the field or job sector. Computer careers – graphic design, programming, software engineering, Web design and others – have enjoyed a surge in demand unparalleled in the workforce. But with the economic changes and the outsourcing of jobs overseas, are computer careers still a sure thing?

Well, according to several reports by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), college students or those looking for a career change would be wise to consider a career in computers. According to a November 2005 report, the BLS estimates that the professional-level IT workforce will grow at more than twice the rate of the overall workforce from 2004-2014, creating 1 in 19 new jobs. Furthermore, six of the 30 occupations that are projected to grow the fastest are in the IT profession.

“IT jobs are definitely on the rise again,” says Quincie Rivers, area vice president for Adecco, the largest company in the field of human resources and staffing services and one of the biggest employers in the world. Rivers says that IT job opportunities abound in all areas – everything from entry-level “help desk” jobs to project managers and software engineers – and that going to a staffing company like Adecco is the perfect way to land a job with an IT company. “You can work as a temporary employee, temp-to-hire or a direct placement while earning good pay, full benefits, vacation and holiday pay. It’s a good way to get your foot in the door.”

While many IT occupations are enjoying job growth, there are some that especially stand out. According to the BLS’ Occupational Outlook Quarterly Report, Winter 2005-06, jobs for computer applications software engineers are expected to grow 48 percent from 2004-2014; computer systems software engineers 43 percent; and network and computer systems administrators 38 percent. Conversely, computer hardware engineers are expected to have “average” employment growth due to intense foreign competition.

Computer Software Engineers

One reason why computer software engineers are in such high demand is their versatility, says Charles Nicholas, professor and chair of the department of computer science and electrical engineering at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Nicholas says that of the most highly paid and fastest growing IT occupations noted by the BLS report, “computer science graduates can do all those jobs, and computer engineers can do most of them and others. People may have the impression that computer engineers just go to work for computer companies, like Intel or IBM. Sure, many students do just that, but computer engineers are versatile because they know about software as well as hardware. The biggest growth sector in the economy in our area in recent years has been national defense, and computer engineers find themselves taking part in all kinds of projects, ranging from small to very large, in that field since many such projects involve programming as well as hardware design.” In addition to defense jobs, the increase in mobile technology, e-business and need for information security will also fuel the demand for software engineers.

Those who work in software and application development – like any IT career – should expect some long hours and stress, says Beth Gunn, manager of IT application development for a telecommunications company in Overland Park, Kan. “Honestly, there is stress that comes with a fast-paced IT job, and long hours are also common. In addition, everyone in the IT industry is trying to feel his or her way with the outsourcing and off-shoring of development work,” says Gunn, who says that she enjoys the fast pace of her job. “Every day you come into work and know that you won’t be bored; I learn something new every day. Previous to my current position, I was on the client side managing a suite of systems, responsible for providing client system requirements to IT. I quickly found that I really enjoyed working with applications and development, but I felt slightly removed from all the action. So, when an opportunity came up in IT to manage an application development group, I jumped at the chance. Truly, this has been the most fun I have ever had in a job. I have found that IT is my true calling.”

Network Systems Administrators

As companies continue to invest heavily in computer networks and in computer and cyber security, the need for systems administrators also grows. Andrew Sears, chair of the department of Information Systems (IS) at UMBC, notes that systems administrators are employed in a wide variety of positions with many working for the federal government or corporations, and those with a bachelor’s degree find well-paying jobs quickly. “In a recent UMBC IS alumni jobs survey, 66 percent of the respondents said they found employment in their field in three months or less, and the average salary of these respondents is over $52,000,” says Sears.

Those who land a job as a network systems administrator will also find the work challenging and rewarding, says Sebastian Perlowski, a network administrator for IT Easy, a network consulting firm that administers, troubleshoots and installs networks throughout the greater Chicago area. “Every day is a new challenge. We have some ongoing clients, but most are new clients, so there are different needs to tackle each day,” says Perlowski, who graduated with a psychology degree from Michigan State University and then obtained computer skills at Devry University. “Everyone needs a computer, so I knew it was a good field to go into.

“This job is very rewarding because you get to see clients grow their business and become computer experts on their own. I feel like a teacher.” Perlowski admits, though, that the field can be volatile. “We were the No. 1 service provider for Gateway, so when the Gateway stores started closing, I got nervous. There is a lot of instability.”

Computer Support Specialists

While many jobs in IT require a bachelor’s degree, those with an associate’s degree can still land jobs in the hottest professions. According to the BLS, 119,000 jobs for computer support specialists will be added from 2004-14. Anyone who has worked in an office environment has inevitably called the “help desk” when computers problems arise and has been assisted by a computer support specialist, who has provided technical assistance, support and advice. Due to the different areas where problems may occur – network, software, hardware, operating systems and Internet – computer support specialists must be prepared for just about anything. In the PC Systems Support & Technology program at Delta College (Mich.), for example, students study the various Windows Operating Systems, Unix/Linux Operating Systems, Oracle Database Management, Novell Network Administration, Cisco Internetworking and Internet security.

According to Steve Cooper of the counseling/advising & career services department at Delta College, recent graduates have obtained jobs at a medical facility, a computer services company and a large temporary/contract services company. Computer support specialists can be found in about every type of company, and, according to the Michigan Occupational Information System, opportunities abound in the various branches of the U.S. military.

Keys to landing a hot computer job

While an associate’s or bachelor’s degree will aid in your efforts to land an IT job, experts say it takes more than a degree in this competitive field.

If you are in school or about to start, consider taking an internship position with a local industry or government agency, says UMBC’s Nicholas. “We find that many, if not most, interns end up getting offers for full-time jobs when they graduate,” says Nicholas.

Also, employers say they are looking for IT people who are not strictly technology-focused. “I am always looking for IT individuals who have situational awareness, the knowledge of what’s going on around you in the company,” says Adam Saynuk, marketing director and art director at RiskMetrics Group in New York, a global financial software company. “No matter what you do, you are representing the company, and considering other aspects of the business like marketing is key.”

UMBC’s Sears says that “combining an IS degree with a domain-specific minor or certificate that matches a student’s career goals makes him or her stand out when applying for a job.” For example, computer software engineers interested in working for a bank should have some expertise in finance. Adds Nicholas, “Students sometimes focus too much attention on the requirements of their major, and although obviously this is important, it would be a shame to miss out on the breadth of courses and experiences the modern university offers. Business classes and foreign languages are a good idea.” Gunn agrees. “I am so happy that I have so much business education. Many people in the IT field are so focused on IT courses that they miss out on many important business principles that will get you very far in your career. I would recommend taking as many business-related classes as possible.”

Of course, staying current on changes in applications and operating systems is paramount, says Perlowski. “The computer industry changes daily,” he stresses. “This is a rapidly changing field, and it behooves students to know how to keep themselves up-to-date with new technology,” adds Nicholas.

According to a Michigan State University study, other skills employers are looking for include communication skills, leadership, critical thinking/problem solving, willingness to learn and teamwork. “We require a year-long capstone project, which gives students a chance to work on teams as they investigate, design, implement and test a system,” says Nicholas.

IT jobs for non-geeks

You don’t have to be an engineer to land a job in computers. Those looking for a less-technical route in the field may consider a bachelor of arts degree in business technology administration, which provides an overview of office information systems and allows students to speak the same language as IT people but focuses more on management. Some liberal arts schools also pair graphic design with writing, communication and technical skills for a degree program that allows students to pursue jobs in several different arenas.

Sales and marketing jobs in IT are another route. Although Saynuk works for a financial software company, he is responsible for the marketing materials, press kits, software interfaces and support documentation for RiskMetrics. Saynuk, whose first job as a temporary designer for a marketing agency in Washington, D.C., later became a junior and then senior designer position, says that he has been lucky in landing several different jobs in IT. “I never thought I’d work on the business side, but when I saw the job online, I applied for it. “I still do most of the graphic design work, but I’m also involved in strategic planning, marketing and managing.”

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